Fishing

A wallaby stamped its foot and woke me.

We were camped on a high bank on a bend in the Leichhardt River, not far from Burketown. In that time and that climate, for us camping meant a ground sheet and a tarp. Con and I and little Matt and Lizzie had been invited to visit some Finnish fishermen at their camp.

The wallaby was only two metres away from me, staring at me. It stamped its foot again. It was quite unafraid but looked resentful at having its place invaded.

Soon the wallaby hopped away, and the fishermen got a campfire going, with a barbecue grill over it. They filleted one of their fresh barramundi catch and threw it on the plate. I’ve rarely eaten anything that tasted as good as that barbecued barra straight from the river.

Leichhardt River en.wikipedia.org

Their gravlax was good too – raw barra sliced thin, wrapped in little bundles and pickled with lemon juice and onions.

When we moved to Burketown, a local fisherman brought us a barramundi and filleted it for me on the back landing. Barramundi and prawns – that’s one way those locals expressed friendship to a newcomer.

I’m not a fishing person, but fishing was my grandfather’s favourite thing in the world. Living in Nambour, he would drive to Tin Can Bay with friends, put up a tent and go fishing. For bait they’d dig yabbies and eugaries at low tide out of the wet sand, then fish with rods off the surf beach at Inskip Point.

My grandfather (standing) and others digging for bait, 1940

I’ve got the little Box Brownie photos taken when my dad joined them on their 1940 fishing trip. He helpfully put little crosses above himself in the photos.

The angling party, Inskip Point, 1940.

There are ardent fishers all around Australia, on inland rivers and lakes and around the coast. The only things that change around the country are the types of fish and the discomforts involve in catching them: heat, cold, storms, crocodiles.

Our Joe in Far North Queensland sometimes goes fishing himself, but usually buys from a mate, a devoted fisherman out of Mission Beach who catches more than he can eat. He charges Joe a flat rate of $20 a kilogram for filleted fish.

“Rosy job fish,” Joe tells me. “Red emperor, cobia, coral trout, longnose emperor, Spanish mackerel, black nannygai, finger mark, tusker, saddle tailed sea perch.

“We use the Spanish mackerel for curry.

“Best are finger mark and tusker.”

“I was thinking of lashing out on some barramundi for Christmas,” I tell him.

“Don’t do it on our account. We used barra for curry, too.”

Baby Joe with a barramundi, Yarrabah

None of these fish, caught wild, would sell for less than $30-$60 in a Brisbane fish shop.

In 2018, Con and I spent a night at the Commercial Hotel, Tara, on the Western Darling Downs. It was the eve of the local fishing competition, to be held at the Tara Lagoon on the edge of town, and talk in the bar was all about fishing. All native fish caught would be returned to the lagoon; the exotic carp, a major pest, would not. The Tara Fish Re-Stocking Association was running the competition.

Tara Fishing Competition at Tara Lagoon. September 29, 2018 courier-mail.com.au

That reminded me of Hamar Midgley.

Hamar Midgley was a woodworker and furniture maker in Nambour, where my family lived; and he loved fishing. The Midgley house was a timber Queenslander on what is now National Park Road, with a paddock out the back running down to the creek. I remember some magnificent Guy Fawkes parties and bonfires in the paddock.

The Midgleys were good family friends who lived a close-to-the-earth lifestyle and would never be wealthy. Then Hamar was offered the perfect job. I remember him saying with delight to my father one day, “They’re going to pay me to go fishing!”

Hamar Midgley had become, through his own dedication and research, a leading amateur expert on Australian native fish species. Much of Queensland’s fishing is done in freshwater lakes, dams, rivers and creeks, and it was Hamar who made that possible. In the early 1960s he carried out Australia’s first official release of native fish into a waterway, at Borumba Dam, south-west of Gympie. Now, over fifty lakes, dams and waterways in Queensland alone have been stocked with native fish.

“Hamar in his dinghy and bush hat with a long tom, Jabiru, NT” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

For over forty years, Hamar worked as a full-time fisheries consultant for the Queensland Government, travelling out west with Mary to waterways unknown except to locals. In the early 2000s I visited them at their home at Bli Bli, on the Sunshine Coast. Mary told me of their research, camped far from amenities and recording of the dawn chorus of bushland birds. What a glorious life.

“Hamar and Mary at a bush camp sorting the catch-of-the-day” http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/vale-hamar-midgley

In 1994 Hamar was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Science from UQ for his research into Queensland’s fresh water fish species. He died in 2014, but it’s largely thanks to his work that fishing in Queensland’s inland waterways is flourishing.

Not so on some of the wild rivers in the Far North. At the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel, we met a group of recreational fishermen heading home. They’d just returned, disappointed, four hundred kilometres down the dirt road from the Mitchell River on western Cape York.

Disappointed fishing party at the Chillagoe Cockatoo Hotel Motel

“There were no fish,” they told us. “Big fishing concerns are flouting the rules. You’re not allowed to stretch nets right across the river, so they put one most of the way across, then another from the opposite bank a bit further upstream, then another from the same side, making a zigzag of nets across the river.

“For us blokes who head up there for a fishing weekend, there’s not much point anymore.”

How can fishing be regulated in the wild country of Cape York, with its small population and huge distances? There are no fishing clubs keeping an eye on things up there.

Back on the Leichhardt River those Finns also complained about rule breaking fishermen reducing fish stocks.

That barramundi was memorable. Still, the best fish I ever ate was a humble catfish. My uncle pulled it out of the Balonne River, somewhere near Dirranbandi, with a hand-held fishing line. He filleted it, built a fire on the riverbank under the gum trees and fried it on the spot. It was perfect.

Golden Gumboot

It’s December in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the chimneys of Tully Sugar Mill are quiet. Crushing has finished for the year. Behind the town, the rainforests of Mount Tyson are cloaked in rain.

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Wet Tropics

This is Golden Gumboot country. The Golden Gumboot is an unofficial, hotly contested yearly competition for the highest rainfall, between the Far North Queensland towns of Tully and Babinda.

Tully, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, has at the start of its main street a concrete gumboot 7.9 metres high with a frog crawling up it. Having survived two fierce cyclones, the boot was recently refurbished by means of a state government grant and given a spectacular coat of gold paint. There is a staircase to the top, and a viewing platform. 7.9 metres is the amount of rain that fell here in 1950: the highest annual rainfall ever recorded in a populated area of Australia. Tully’s average annual rainfall, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is 4 metres.

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Tully’s Golden Gumboot with renewed gold

Tully has a Golden Gumboot Festival each year whatever the totals are; but in recent decades Babinda, 80 kilometres further north, has had the higher rainfall, averaging 4.28 metres annually, compared to Tully’s 4.09 metres. It’s Babinda that has the Golden Gumboot bragging rights.

To give an idea of what these numbers signify, Brisbane has an average rainfall of just over one metre a year.

Babinda nestles close to the rainforest-covered slopes of Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. If you can see the top of Mount Bartle Frere, so locals say, it’s going to rain. If you can’t, it is raining.

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Towards Mount Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest

People in these northern towns and farms face a challenging climate, economic threats and agricultural tribulations. Bananas and papaws are major industries around here, but the focus of Tully’s economy is its sugar mill. Chinese-owned, it is the economic heart of this working town. Tully Mill crushes the second highest tonnage of any in the country.

Banana crops, papaw trees and sugar cane are vulnerable to disease, and all are at the mercy of the market – and the weather. Because the rainfall in this region is so reliable, farmers don’t irrigate.

The locals are down-to-earth and practical. They drive twin-cab utes, often with a pig dog cage on the back, and there are boats parked in many back yards. Men dress in boots, work shorts, polo shirts and hi-vis. Women favour denim shorts, black singlet tops and rubber thongs.

The locals relish an earthy form of humour. For instance, a visitor to Tully might talk about driving up the main street, Butler Street; but to a local, it’s “going up the Butt.”

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Up Butler Street, Tully, towards Mount Tyson

Both Babinda and Tully have spectacular tourist draw cards nearby. The famous Tully Gorge, where white-water rafting tours ride the outpour of water from the Kareeya hydro-electricity plant, runs right up against the ranges of the Atherton Tableland and the three hundred metre drop of Tully Falls. The falls lie directly below Tully Falls Lookout on the map, but the distance between the two by road is over two hundred kilometres.

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Tully Gorge seen from Tully Falls Lookout, 200km away by road

Electric-blue Ulysses butterflies flit through the forests along the gorge.

Babinda has The Boulders, a famous swimming hole and granite boulder-strewn creek of matchless beauty. We called in there for a swim a few years ago, floating in that clear pool in the rain as if in a cool, green heaven.

“We used to come to The Boulders for picnics,” Con told me, kicking against the gentle flow of the water. Con grew up in Innisfail, which lies between Tully and Babinda, looking out towards Mount Bartle Frere. Innisfail, famous for its papaws, averages a mere 3.4 metres of rainfall annually.

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Innisfail banana farm

“Downstream from the main swimming hole there’s a place we called the Chute, which was like a fast water slide. It was great. And the Devil’s Pool – you’d have to be crazy to jump in there, but people did.”

This is a dangerous place for people who venture too close to where the creek is sucked down among huge granite boulders. Adventurous young men have died here.

“When I played for Innisfail Brothers League team and we had a game in Babinda, we’d come to The Boulders afterwards for a swim. We played at the Babinda showgrounds, and there was no such luxury as showers there.”

I first visited The Boulders with my family during a road trip from the south. My dad climbed up on a large boulder and swung out on a rope swing before performing a cartwheeling belly flop into the creek. He swam ashore with his chest scarlet from hitting the water. We were laughing; he didn’t see the funny side.

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The Boulders, Babinda

In 2011, Cyclone Yasi brought disaster to a thousand kilometres of  Queensland coast, its eye crossing the coast at Mission Beach, the closest coastal town to Tully.

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Cyclone Yasi crossing the coast

Yasi’s devastation still shows in an occasional roofless building and in the thinned rainforest on the hillsides. Mission Beach people were isolated for days. A couple of years after Yasi I spoke to a young Frenchwoman living there. I asked her how she had fared.

“During the cyclone, I got a call from my family in Paris,” she told me. “My mother had died. I wanted to get out, to get to the airport in Cairns and fly home. The roads were blocked with debris. The army was clearing them with chainsaws, but no one was allowed in or out.

“I finally managed to get a ride out to the highway with the police, and a bus to Cairns, but the funeral was over long before I reached home.”

We visited friends at South Mission Beach in their beautiful timber house on the hill, and stood on their verandah looking down through greenery towards the tranquil beach where Yasi made landfall.

“Did you leave, when Yasi was coming?” I asked.

“No, we stayed here. We bunkered down in the bathroom, but it was scary. The noise was incredible. The glass doors at the back blew out, and the garden was a mess of shredded trees and debris. We couldn’t get down the road for smashed branches and tree trunks.”

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A local’s comment on Cyclone Yasi

In the Tully branch of Cassowary Coast Libraries there is a display of local historical photographs. Looking at them and seeing the difficulties involved in land clearing, timber felling, road building and transport in the old days, and considering the difficulties they still face today from the weather and the markets, it’s easy to see why the locals need to be tough.

2019 has been drier than usual, even here in the Wet Tropics. The Cassowary Coast Council, which includes Tully and Innisfail, has announced Level 3 water restrictions. The beautiful creek at The Boulders is at its lowest level for years. Babinda and Tully have both recorded much less than their average rainfalls, and little rain is forecast for the rest of the year.

The Wet Tropics is still the greenest place in the state. Sugar, banana and pawpaw farmers are watching the forecasts, though. They must wonder what the future will bring.

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Ulysses butterflies

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